Binary opposites in Buddhism—such as saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, emptiness and luminosity, ignorance and wisdom, and scores more—have been the stuff of debates since Śākyamuni Buddha first preached in Sarnath. He himself became the subject of a central binary: on his parinirvāṇa, did he dissipate into nonexistence, or does he abide as a luminous universal principle? It's an age-old dialectic of presence and absence that cuts to the heart of Buddhist metaphysics and is particularly relevant for buddha-nature theory. Similarly, over the centuries, teachers have explored multiple ways of explaining the relationship between ordinary deluded beings and fully perfect buddhas; at the moment of our enlightenment, will we be transformed, or will our true nature be revealed? Is something that isn't here now somehow produced? Do we share a common nature with the buddhas, or are we fundamentally different from them? The Buddha may have proposed a middle way between binary dualism, but there's a lot of disagreement about where that middle falls.
Buddha-nature theory seems to have been initially offered as one such middle way, a previously missing link between extremes offered by the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra schools of Mahāyāna doctrine. On the one hand was a theory of emptiness that was so extreme that, many argued, certain meditative practices were undermined. On the other hand was a theory of mind that proposed a permanently existent consciousness, an idea that was accused of violating the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence and no-self. In its earliest appearances buddha-nature was vague, more poetry than theoretical principle, hinting at possible interpretations and promising salvation for all without necessarily explaining much. But as the doctrine grew in popularity, debate lines developed. It has been categorized as provisional and definitive, defined as emptiness as well as luminosity, labeled Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, or neither, as it has been tugged one way and the other across the middle ground.
To better understand what the debate lines are and where the great thinkers in Buddhist history have stood, the following outlines the various binaries that appear in buddha-nature theory. Each is briefly introduced, with suggestions for further reading. Great Buddhist thinkers who populate this website, as well as scriptures and classic works of doctrinal exegesis, are presented with a checklist of positions.
Universal or Limited
Not all scriptures agree that buddha-nature is universal. Texts such as the Laṅkāvatārasūtra and the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra describe a class of beings (gotra) called the icchantika, who are so degraded through their lust and ignorance that they can never become enlightened. Such is the case only in the earliest version of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, however; the later version teaches the universality of buddha-nature, and all but one tradition has rejected the category. The exception was the Faxiang school (法相宗) of the great Chinese translator Xuanzang 玄奘 (born 602), which declined only a few generations after Xuanzang's death. Even without the icchantika on the scene, however, not all Buddhist schools accept the universality of buddha-nature. The Yogācāra theory of classes of beings divides beings into three basic categories determined by their potential liberation; only those belonging to the bodhisattva class will attain complete and perfect buddhahood, while those of the "disciple" (śrāvaka) and "solitary buddha" (pratyekabuddha) classes will attain the lesser enlightenment of the arhat. These beings cannot be said, therefore, to possess buddha-nature the same as the bodhisattvas. In some Buddhist traditions the universality of buddha-nature is taken to include even inanimate objects such as grass and trees and even roof tiles. The logic here is that buddha-nature is identical to the dharmakāya, the truth-body of the buddha, which is the true nature of all phenomena.
Provisional or Definitive
Buddhist scholars classify all doctrine as either definitive or provisional. Concepts and statements are deemed definitive when they accurately describe reality. Those that do not, but are of practical value, are provisional. Buddha-nature has generated considerable controversy since the theory was first developed in the early centuries of the Common Era. Some commentators have suggested that the concept was initially offered as a palliative for those who feared emptiness as taught by the Mahāyāna. It was also a guarantee for those who might be dissuaded from a path to salvation that was said to take near-infinite lifetimes to traverse. As such, the concept was plainly intended as a provisional teaching, an encouragement to those on and not yet on the path, but not actually true. Yet buddha-nature scriptures are remarkably vague, allowing for a wide range of definitions and interpretations. Beginning in the eleventh century with the popularity of Ratnagotravibhāga, the famous commentary on the buddha-nature sūtras, theorists began to debate over whether the scriptures were to be taken as definitive or provisional. Candrakīrti, one of the greatest Madhyamaka philosophers, deemed tathāgatagarbha to be provisional, for it did not conform to standard teachings on emptiness. His fellow Mādhyamika Kamalaśīla, however, categorized it as definitive based on the attractive (and anti-Yogācāra) promise that all beings will eventually attain buddhahood. Yogācāra philosophers also varied in their categorization depending on how they interpreted the doctrine's contradiction with the three-vehicle theory, which held that not all beings have the capacity to attain enlightenment.
Emptiness or Luminosity
The binary of luminosity and emptiness represents a fundamental Buddhist debate over using cataphatic or apophatic language—that is, whether one can use positive language to describe reality or whether one must always use the language of negation. Emptiness theory posits that there is ultimately no permanent or independent nature to any phenomena, be it physical or mental. Yet scriptures also teach that the mind itself is naturally luminous, such as in the Perfection of Wisdom, where one reads that "in its essential original nature, thought is transparently luminous." In luminosity theory, the stains of saṃsāra do not defile the mind but only cloud its true nature, and enlightenment is simply a revealing of what is already there. Luminosity is a key factor in tantra, where a direct experience of the mind's luminosity is a goal. In rejecting such affirmative descriptions of mind, teachers such as Haribhadra and Sakya Paṇḍita have reconciled this binary by relegating luminosity to provisional status—language which is used to teach and which is not completely accurate. But others such as Vasubandhu and Nāropa maintained that luminosity is the actual characteristic of mind and is therefore not to be regarded as empty.
What Is Buddha-Nature?
Since the notion of tathāgatagarbha wasn't drawn from a single scriptural source nor predicated on the views of a single philosophical school or movement, there is no universally accepted definition of what buddha-nature actually is or is not. Rather, there developed many different approaches to this topic based on how buddha-nature was interpreted from a variety of philosophical perspectives. Below are some of the major positions taken on buddha-nature and the individuals who supported them.
Emptiness That Is a Nonimplicative Negation (without enlightened qualities)
- This position refers to the sheer emptiness that most classical Mādhyamikas subscribe to. The emptiness that is a nonimplicative negation also corresponds to what became known as the rangtong view, in that its referent is empty of an inherent or intrinsic nature. Proponents of this view typically hold the second turning of the Dharma wheel to be the most definitive.
Emptiness That Is an Implicative Negation (with enlightened qualities)
- This position refers to an emptiness that when denying the existence of one thing implies the presence of another. This corresponds to what became known as the zhentong view, in which buddha-nature is empty of adventitious defilements but not empty of enlightened qualities. Proponents of this view typically hold the third turning of the Dharma wheel to be the most definitive.
Mind's Luminous Nature
- This position refers to those that assert that buddha-nature is the luminous nature of the mind itself.
Unity of Emptiness and Luminosity
- This position refers to those who assert that realization derives from the reconciliation of the ultimate and relative truths as the unity of appearance and emptiness. Proponents of this view typically hold the second turning and third turning of the Dharma wheel to be equally definitive.
Causal Potential or Disposition
- This position refers to those who assert buddha-nature to be the basic or primary cause for beings to attain enlightenment. It is a capacity that sentient beings share with buddhas that demarcates their inherent potential to become enlightened should they choose to embark upon the path. In this case buddha-nature is often equated with a disposition or hereditary trait, gotra, that guarantees the possibility of enlightenment.
Resultant State of Buddhahood
- This position refers to those that assert that buddha-nature only exists in those who have already achieved enlightenment. Typically this means equating buddha-nature with the dharmakāya of a fully enlightened buddha.
Latent State of Buddhahood
- This position refers to those that assert buddha-nature is a latent form of enlightenment that is fully present in sentient beings but is obscured, and therefore inactive, at this stage of their development. In this sense, it is called buddha-nature when it has yet to manifest, and it is called enlightenment or buddhahood when it has been actualized.
Different Types of Tathāgatagarbha
- This position refers to those that assert multiple versions of buddha-nature that correspond to various stages of its manifestation. In other words, rather than asserting a single buddha-nature that applies to everyone, they divide it into different types that apply to specific circumstances.
Tathāgatagarbha Was Taught Merely to Encourage Sentient Beings to Enter the Path
- This position refers to those that assert the teachings on buddha-nature are merely provisional. From this perspective buddha-nature teachings are just a tool utilized to coerce students in the right direction rather than being an exact representation of the way things truly are. In this case, those who subscribe to this view tend to suggest that buddha-nature was taught in order to alleviate fears of emptiness or of the tremendously time-consuming effort needed to traverse the path to enlightenment.
Potential or Already-perfected
The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, one of the earliest scriptures on tathāgatagarbha, or buddha-nature, has the Buddha state that "all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of kleśas—the adventitious stains—have a tathāgatagarbha that is eternally unsullied and that is replete with virtues no different from my own." The sūtra gives nine similes to describe that buddha-nature. These are:
- A buddha encased in a decaying lotus blossom
- Pure honey surrounded by a swarm of bees
- A kernel of wheat not yet removed from its husk
- A piece of pure gold fallen into a pit of waste
- Treasure hidden beneath an impoverished household
- The pit of a mango that can grow into a mighty tree
- A statue of pure gold concealed in rags
- A vile woman who carries in her womb the embryo of a great man
- A statue cast in gold still encased by its earthen mold
Of these, seven describe a perfect object that is obscured by something else. The object is unaffected by its obscuration, yet it is made either unknown to people, such as the treasure under the house, or rendered difficult to obtain, as in the case of the honey surrounded by bees. The message is that buddha-nature is already present, already perfected, yet obscured by the stains of ignorance, desire, and hatred. The similes of the mango pit and the noble child in the base woman's womb have a different message, however: both indicate a potential to transform into something that is not currently present. The noble being in the womb is only an embryo, and the pit merely carries the genetic material to grow into the tree. Whether buddha-nature is properly understood as an already-present perfection or a potential to attain that perfection is debated in terms of whether buddha-nature can be defined as the natural luminosity of the mind or whether it is the same as emptiness, and therefore must not be said to exist as an independent phenomenon. If the former, then the obscurations that conceal that natural luminosity need only be removed in order to attain liberation, for one's buddhahood is already present. If the later, then that buddhahood is not present and must be cultivated. Among those who take the position that buddha-nature is a potential, there are multiple avenues of explaining how the potential is actualized, with various terms to label buddha-nature in its various stages.
Madhyamaka or Yogācāra
Buddha-nature does not easily align with either Madhyamaka or Yogācāra doctrine, though it has been appropriated by members of both schools. The theory seems to have developed outside of either community in response to their assertions on the nature of reality and human nature, such that some scholars have posited the existence of a "Tathāgatagarbha school" of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. The assertion of the existence of a buddha-nature that possesses characteristics conflicts with Madhyamaka teachings of the fundamental absence of all independent phenomena; that is to say, buddha-nature would appear to contradict emptiness theory. At the same time, the assertion of the universality of buddha-nature conflicts with Yogācāra theories that classify beings according to their potential for liberation. Nevertheless, both Madhyamaka and Yogācāra authors have employed various interpretive strategies to make it conform to their school's orthodoxy. Both were aided by the relatively late Laṅkāvatārasūtra, which in separate sections equated buddha-nature with both emptiness and the ālayavijñāna. The Tibetan custom of including the Ratnagotravibhāga as one of the Five Dharma Treatises of Maitreya, a group of core Yogācāra scriptures, further lends to the common belief that buddha-nature is a teaching of that school. However, Yogācāra never really gained a foothold in Tibet other than as part of some relatively short-lived attempts to establish a synthetic Yogācāra-Madhyamaka philosophy. Hence, there was considerable debate over how to classify the five Maitreya works in Tibet, as Yogācāra, characterized by the Mind-Only view (sems tsam), was generally considered inferior to Madhyamaka. Therefore, most Tibetan proponents of buddha-nature theory found ways to align it with Madhyamaka, while its opponents tended to dismiss it as a Yogācāra doctrine.
Analytic or Meditative Tradition
The Tibetan traditions generally divide the primary modes of exegesis on the Ratnagotravibhāga into two lines of transmission known as the analytic tradition (thos bsam gyi lugs) and the meditative tradition (sgom lugs). These two traditions originated with the Tibetan disciples of the Kashmiri master Sajjana—namely Ngok Lotsāwa and Tsen Khawoche, respectively. Therefore, these two are also commonly referred to as the Ngok tradition (rngog lugs), representing the scholarly or analytic approach, and the Tsen tradition (btsan lugs), representing the more practice-oriented, meditative approach. Though it is likely the diverging motivations of these two figures that would set the respective trajectories of these traditions, with Ngok as the aspiring scholar, translator, and heir apparent to Sangpu Neutok, one of the first major Tibetan scholastic institutions, on the one hand, and the elder Tsen looking to devote the rest of his life to practice and hoping to apply the teachings of the Ratnagotravibhāga in preparation for his own death, on the other. In terms of the official stances of these traditions, they are typically associated with the above debates over emptiness or luminosity, which pits philosophical reasoning against yogic experience. Thus we see the analytic tradition branch out from Ngok's base of Sangpu Neutok, an institution that evolved in association from the Kadam to the Sakya and finally the Geluk school, all stalwarts of the classical Madhyamaka philosophy that would come to be associated with the rangtong position. Likewise, the meditative tradition would become a vehicle for the practical instructions on the treatise that would feed into and bolster the experiential approaches of the Mahāmudrā teachings, as well as the more positivistic position of zhentong Madhyamaka that would take root in the Kagyu and Jonang schools.